Standards

Political Debate Upends Texas Social Studies Standards Process

By Ileana Najarro — September 09, 2022 7 min read
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The Texas State Board of Education voted this month to delay the revision process of the state’s K-12 social studies standards until 2025, bowing to conservative pressure against drafts intended to make history instruction more inclusive.

The agency had a goal of updating the standards—known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS—by the end of this year, providing teachers with a revised guide for the content and skills they must cover in the classroom.

The last major overhaul of these standards was completed over a decade ago and then further streamlined in 2018.

Debates over whether and how to make social studies more culturally inclusive aren’t new. But over the last two years, the debates have led to both legislative and public interference in state education agency procedures: Louisiana, South Dakota, and Virginia are other states where recent efforts to update what’s covered in history class involved delays and do-overs.

What happened in Texas, some researchers and educators say, stems from the broader Republican-led effort across the country to pass legislation that limits how topics of racism and gender identity are discussed in schools. Texas has its own version of these laws in the form of Senate Bill 3.

“Here’s that strategy of … we’re going to continue to sort of block off and create more and more barriers to any kind of progressive civics [and social studies] instruction that really places the truth of racial inequality and racial injustice in this country at the core,” said Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of political science, education, and public policy at Brown University.

What exactly happened in Texas

For months, work groups of educators, subject-matter experts, and community leaders selected by the Texas state board and the Texas Education Agency worked together under direction of the board to draft revisions to K-12 social studies standards, and the framework for two new ethnic studies classes: Asian American and American Indian/Native studies.

State standards are typically updated every seven years or so and the hope in Texas was to update those approved back in 2010.

The proposed standards cover foundational knowledge building in Texas, U.S., and world history in K-2, world history in grades 3-5 and Texas and U.S. history in 6-8. But the proposed revisions also aimed to have students learn more about the diverse groups that shaped the history of the state, the country, and the world.

For instance, a proposal for 2nd grade would be to have students “define migration and explain how some migrations are voluntary, and some are forced.” Texas is among the states with the highest number of refugees resettled in the U.S. whose children attend public schools (most recently the state was among those resettling the most Afghan refugees).

Work group members, such as Michael Boucher, an associate professor at the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University in San Antonio, said they were diligent about fact-checking their work; adhering to feedback from the state board and the TEA; and making sure their proposed revisions acknowledged SB 3 and its provisions over how to teach about current events and topics of race.

“These are some of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with and I’ve been in education for over 30 years,” he said. “They were incredibly knowledgeable.”

But over months conservative nonprofits and parent groups were tracking the process. In the weeks leading up to the latest scheduled board meetings, they coordinated email messages to state board members and signed up to testify at state board meetings voicing opposition to the work group proposals—and the work groups themselves.

Mary Elizabeth Castle, a senior policy advisor with the conservative group Texas Values, objected to the fact the new framework for social studies would have combined Texas with U.S. history across three years as opposed to the standalone Texas history survey course currently taught in 7th grade.

“An organization really proud of our Texas values and Texas history didn’t want to see Texas history diminished or watered down,” Castle said.

The group also had concerns over the inclusion of teaching about the LGBTQ Pride movement in 8th grade as part of a broader coverage of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and other content questions.

In public testimonies and emails, Texas Values and similar groups called for a delay in the revision process to address their concerns. State board members, in meetings on Aug. 30 and Sept. 2, acknowledged this request as they deliberated over how to move forward with the revision process—some saying they needed more time to address constituents’ concerns, and others countering that a delay didn’t reflect the desires of all Texas parents and educators.

Meanwhile, a group of Republican lawmakers accused the standards-writers of contravening SB 3, and threatened to get involved, the Texas Tribune reported.

On Sept. 2 the board voted to reconsider which grade levels Texas history will be taught. Other standards in K-8 could change, too. And an approved motion says the board will “spend the next two years, until 2025, investigating to inform the framework.”

The conservative groups also want to replace some of the group members with others more aligned to their views.

“I think that they should choose work group members who have the heart for teaching American history, Texas history, and not cutting out things that are important to our history, like religious liberty, religion, and family values,” Castle said.

Some educators noted that by 2025, the board’s current conservative majority might grow following the upcoming November elections. When asked whether the election would impact the social studies revision process in 2025, Castle said no.

“We had the majority of votes and that’s why we were able to delay the process,” she said. “I think whether or not we have new people, or we have the same members, as we’ve had this time, I think we’re still in the advantage to have better standards for 2025.”

Groups in favor of the existing work group proposals, including the Texas State Teachers Association, have critiqued what they say is a politically motivated delay.

“This proposed, new curriculum was developed by well-respected educators with the needs of schoolchildren, our state’s future leaders, in mind. But too many members of the board chose to yield to lies and fear,” said Ovidia Molina, the TSTA president.

What educators should take away from the Texas decision

Texas isn’t alone in having its attempts at a revised history curriculum upended.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, announced a relaunching of the social studies standards revision process last year. State education officials had already removed several references to the state’s Native American population in a previous draft.

The newest draft, unveiled Aug. 15, includes Indigenous history and also has an emphasis on patriotism. The workgroup that created the standards had 16 members—13 of whom were registered Republicans, according to the Argus Leader.

Earlier this year Louisiana state education officials rewrote K-12 history expectations drafted by educators after hearing politicized claims that they embodied a negative view of America.

And in August the Virginia state board of education delayed its social studies revision, which sought to address more-diverse perspectives, at the recommendation of the state superintendent. The rationale was to get more input from the public and board members newly appointed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The process of determining what gets taught in history class has never been a smooth one.

Paolo DeMaria, the president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said boards should never shy away from engaging in dialogue that reflects different points of view, with civic engagement from various groups being the goal of a democracy. Civic engagement from the public, he said, is beneficial to governing education procedures.

Other states are likely to face a similar coordinated strategy from constituents as they engage in their own attempts to revise social studies curriculum, said Collins from Brown University.

Those educators and parents who want more-inclusive history taught in schools will have to be civically engaged, too.

“If you really care about civics and social studies, and the direction that it is going, it is extremely important right now that you perform your civic duty,” Collins said.

In Texas, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Texas Freedom Network, which opposed the delay of the standards update, has called on members of the public to “join us by voicing your objections at SBOE meetings, organizing your community to combat book bans at the local level, and uplifting diverse voices in public schools.”

For now, the Texas state board will work the rest of year to modify the current state social studies standards to align to SB 3. Because the ethnic studies courses were part of the delayed revision process, districts interested in pursuing the implementation of Asian American and American Indian/Native studies must apply under a separate approval process that involves pilot programs and more.

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of Education Week as Political Debate Upends Texas Social Studies Standards Process

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